I spent most of June traveling around Russia teaching kids English through traditional American folk music as a part of the ESL Folk Project. The first of its kind, this project (fully titled “Ramblin’ Across Russia: Accessing Culture and Language Through American Folk Music”) was designed by Matthew Nelson and Brendan Mulvihill while they were living abroad in Vladivostock and Tomsk (respectively), working as English Teaching Assistants at Russian universities through the Fulbright Organization. All together, the “Ramblers” were Jordan Stern from San Francisco, CA (guitar), Brendan Mulvihill from Philadelphia, PA (mandolin), Matthew Nelson from Nelson, Oklahoma (banjo), and myself.
The goal of the project was not only to assist young Russians in their study of the English language in a fun way, but also to introduce them to sides of American culture that are perhaps not very well represented by Hollywood and other popular mass media. Because the cities we visited were not located in traditionally touristic regions of the country, we were often the first Americans these kids had ever met, and we spent lots of time entertaining questions about life in the United States. Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, our two countries continue to have a complex political relationship, as highlighted by the recent espionage scandal. In light of these events, the opportunity to have positive interactions on a person-to-person basis felt especially satisfying.
I was ridiculously excited when Brendan invited me to join the Ramblers for this adventure, and we traveled countless miles to crisscross Russia and present our program at five summer camps. The following is a post I wrote for the group’s blog about our experience at the Gubkin camp. There are many more stories, pictures, videos, songs, bios, teaching materials, etc available online at www.eslfolk.com. Enjoy!
One of the best things about this trip has been getting to see towns in parts of Russia that tourists don’t typically visit. At the camps, people are often curious and ask us about the other cities we’re traveling to on the ESL Folk Tour. Whenever we run down the itinerary, there’s always one place that gets the same response: “Wait, Gubkin? Where’s that?!”
I was excited to check out this city that so few people seem to have heard of, and waited with no small amount of anticipation by the door of our train compartment with the Ramblers and our gear. We arrived in the middle of the night and our “train mom” had urged us to be prepared to get off quickly since the train would only be stopping for 2 minutes at the Gubkin station before pressing on. We grabbed our bags and instruments and were bundled off the train, and my harp and I fell directly into the arms of Elena, our camp coordinator.
Elena and her family helped us lug our stuff over to the hotel where we were booked in four single rooms for the first few nights – an unexpected luxury after so much time spent cramped in platzkart bunks and squashed under my harp in the backseats of taxis. We were each handed a key with an ornate swan chain and ascended some sparkling stone diaz-style steps to the chimes of a thousand fire alarm bells set off by sportsmen surreptitiously smoking in their rooms. After some refreshing showers, we collapsed into our fluffed pillows for a few hours sleep.
In the morning, we took a walk to explore this mysterious city. It turns out that Gubkin is a relatively young city, founded just seventy years ago, and built around an enormous iron mine – a vast, gaping crater seven kilometers wide that we visited with some guides from the camp. The town is beautifully laid out, with charming neighborhood apartment complexes each with their own playground and lots of trees. There was a neat park with a mining display and statues celebrating the town’s history and mining practices.
We reviewed some new songs, got our materials ready for the next day’s teaching, and then prepared ourselves for the U.S.A. vs. Slovenia world cup match by playing pick-up soccer in the school fields with some of the campers. It was a “no parents, no rules” game that involved all sorts of inventive goal keeping and ball stealing.
The next morning, we were treated with a visit from David Fay from the English Language Office of the American Embassy in Moscow and his lovely sister Sarah (We’ve been tossing around the idea of re-naming our group the David Fay Tribute Band). They joined us for a rousing set of morning performances by the Rainbow Summer Camp teams. After being serenaded by the four camp groups, who had rehearsed songs for us, we opened up our introduction to American Folk Music with some songs of our own.
I thought that performing live song examples as we talked about their background was an nice way to break up the opening lecture, especially since listening to a long block of talk can be super exhausting for students who are learning English as a second language. The kids seemed to especially enjoy an experimental mash-up of jigs in E minor that Brendan and I tried out when we were discussing immigrants from the British Isles and their influence on American culture and music.
After our presentation/concert, Matt played some samples of traditional folk music from around the world and the students had to try and guess what country each song came from. Brendan had the chance to visit Tuva with some other Fulbrighters this year and brought back some incredible music from that region. It’s always funny when the Tuvan throat-singing track comes on during this game, because none of the kids ever guess that this music is actually from their own country! I think it’s great to bring up Russia’s cultural diversity in these English camps, because it lets us shift the focus off of all the questions we get about life in America and remind the campers about how cool and interesting and vast their own nation is!
One of the most remarkable highlights of this trip for me has been getting to experience Russian hospitality. It seems that every camp we visit adopts us Ramblers, and this was especially true at Gubkin. When we asked Elena for a recommendation of a local restaurant to grab some dinner, she responded by inviting us over to her house for some homemade okroshka, a traditional Russian cold soup made from chopped vegetables and hard-boiled egg with a broth of kvass – a beverage made (as I understand it) by straining water through dark rye bread and allowing it to ferment slightly. This is one of our favorite refreshing drinks, but I’d never had it in a soup before!
After a mere two days in the hotel, we were also invited to stay in Elena’s sister-in-law’s parents’ house, which was a welcome respite for both our budgets and souls. Turns out that after living in such close quarters for so long, those single hotel rooms were starting to feel pretty lonely! We were thrilled to do some laundry and cook a wonderful “family” meal, which we ate beneath the approving (I hope) gaze of an impressive collection of Russian icons.
On our last night, we were also invited out to a dacha for some sensationally delicious shashlik (Russian bar-b-q)! We enjoyed the evening sun, homemade pickles, samagon, and – in addition to the scrumptious chicken and pork skewers – some of the best grilled carp I’ve ever tasted; a veritable feast! With Masha, Olya, Nastia, and Elena among the guests, the feeling was of a family reunion cook-out. Brendan wrote an experimental shashlik ballad on a makeshift guitar, and we finished off the night with some more crazy, hybrid ball games.
The morning came too soon, and with it the time for us to leave for Ufa. Our goodbyes were heartfelt and teary, but we took with us many memories – and some sweet camp T-shirts the campers signed!
The next time someone asks me where Gubkin is, I’ll just point to my heart.